Author Asma Mobin-Uddin: The grinch who stole Eid ul-Adha

Author Asma Mobin-Uddin: The grinch who stole Eid ul-Adha January 3, 2008
The big one, that is…

What are the biggest Christian and Jewish holidays of the year? Religiously speaking, Christmas and Hannukah are not the answer — rather, as observant Christians know, Easter has more significance for followers of Christ, and, as Jews know, Hannukah pales besides Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashonah.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the same phenomenon happens in American Islam. According to accounts from the Prophet Mohammad, Eid ul-Adha — which was celebrated by most American Muslims late last year on December 19 — is meant to be the “Big Eid.” This holiday commemorates how Abraham was asked to, but did not have to, sacrifice his son Ishmael, and also celebrates the end of the yearly pilgrimage or Hajj to Mecca.

I won’t bore you with the World-Religions-101 details on the holiday, but point is that this Eid, in fact, is often much more difficult for American Muslims to “get into.” The other Eid, Eid al-Fitr (or the “small Eid”) comes at the end of Ramadan, after a month of fasting. Somehow its easy to feel celebratory after a month of deprivation, while it takes some real dedication to make Eid ul-Adha special.

Luckily, this year, American Muslim powerhouse Asma Mobin-Uddin — doctor, mother, author, columnist, and head of Ohio’s largest Muslim advocacy group — has supplied American Muslim parents with a sorely needed resource: a high quality children’s book about Eid ul-Adha.

In the story, The Best Eid Ever, beautifully illustrated by Laura Jacobsen, young Aneesa (an American Muslim of South Asian heritage) starts off her Eid looking a little sad — her parents are far away in Saudi Arabia, performing the Hajj. She will celebrate alone with her grandmother, who cheers her with gifts of new clothes. At the mosque where she prays, Aneesa meets two other little girls who turn out to be refugees. When she realizes these girls are too poor to even receive Eid gifts, she secretly gives them her own gifts.

I gave this book a test drive with her 4- and 5-year-old sons. She was a bit wary, because the two usually favor books that include dinosaur, astronaut or mutated-turtle protagonists. Amazingly, however, my oldest boys found the story quite compelling and asked to read the book several times, even though it was about a girl.

I asked Mobin-Uddin to answer a few questions about her book and the difficulties of generating the festive spirit for Eid ul-Adha. Mobin-Uddin — who authored the Paterson Prize-winning children’s book My Name is Bilal in 2005 — kindly took time out of what is surely one of the busiest schedules around to share her thoughts on the holiday.

You’re a professional, a mother, and in charge of a state-wide advocacy organization. Why write children’s literature?

Mobin-Uddin: I initially started writing children’s literature to fill a need in the larger community for books about Muslim-American kids. I continued to write to fill a need in myself to share this experience.

Children’s books have always been important ways that kids have learned about others. Books can help children connect with other cultures on a human level, bypassing the walls of mistrust, anger, and ignorance we see around us in the adult world. Educating children about other cultures early in life lays the groundwork for a lifetime of acceptance, respect, and understanding.

So I had two main reasons for starting to write books for children. I wanted to introduce accurate books about the Muslim-American experience to the general American community, and I wanted to write books that Muslim-American kids would see themselves in.

Why did you choose to set your story around Eid ul-Adha? What was the inspiration for the story? Can you also say what nationality the family is that receives the charity in the story? (They look Sudanese.)

Eid al-Adha is the largest holiday in the Muslim year, and I could not find any fiction books about this holiday available in libraries and bookstores. The month of Ramadan and the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan, are more commonly written about. So I wanted to fill this need.

Children, regardless of faith tradition or cultural background, can appreciate the themes in the story such as the difficulty of celebrating a holiday without a parent or loved one and realizing that the spirit of giving and sharing is what ultimately brings meaning to holiday celebrations. I wanted to inspire and empower kids to know that, even if they are not grown-up and do not have a job, they can still help someone in need.

In Columbus, Ohio where I live, there are more than 45,000 refugees from Somalia. So because of my immediate experience, this was the nationality I had in mind when we discussed the illustrations for the story. But the illustrator lives in Arizona and would not have access to the same population. As the theme of the story is general and does not need the refugees to be from any particular country of origin, many ways of illustrating the refugee family would have worked. I did not intend for them to necessarily be recognizable from a particular country.

Eid al-Adha, in religious terms, is supposed to be the biggest religious holiday of the year for Muslims. In the US, however, Eid al-Fitr is often a “bigger deal.” Why is this? Is it a problem that Eid al-Adha is somewhat neglected?

The religious practices that lead up to these two holidays have a different immediacy for Muslims in America. Eid al-Fitr follows the month of fasting in Ramadan, Eid al-Adha occurs toward the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

For Muslims who are fasting in Ramadan, the rigors of the fast are very real and very personal. People deny themselves and work hard to observe this period of abstinence and spirituality. As a result, there is a sense of personal accomplishment after the month, and the celebration that follows feels like a reward for the commitment and self-denial they chose to engage in during Ramadan.

However, in some ways, the celebration, sacrifice and spirituality that is happening leading up to Eid al-Adha is most real for those who are actually on the Hajj pilgrimage themselves or who perhaps have loved ones there. The rest of the people may feel more of a distance between themselves and the celebration. In short, the sacrifice leading up to the holiday for many is not as personal, so the reward of the holiday may not seem as sweet or appreciated.

I don’t think it is a problem that this happens in the US, I think it is a natural result of the situation I described above. I also think that as Muslims in America know that Eid al-Adha is a bigger holiday according to the religion, they have the challenge of making its observance and lessons as important in their own lives as they do with the observance of Ramadan. They can approach this by making a personal commitment to reflecting on the teachings and blessings in the 10 sacred days before and during the Hajj.

What do you like and dislike about media coverage of Muslim holidays, and this one in particular?

Some years ago, I felt that the vast majority of the coverage of Eid al-Adha and the Hajj pilgrimage was irrelevant and sensationalized. One would not understand what people actually did on the pilgrimage and instead read sensationalized explanations of Hajj rituals or about small, isolated groups of pilgrims who were protesting something.

Now I think the coverage has improved greatly. There seems to be much more focus on understanding the pilgrimage instead of sensationalizing it. For instance, last year our local paper tried to have weblogs sent from local pilgrims during the Hajj. It didn’t work well because of the lack of internet access in the desert locations, but it was obvious that the newspaper was trying very hard to contribute to understanding.

Clarification of some aspects of the Hajj and Eid al-Adha which are sometimes misunderstood can be found in my recent column in the Columbus Dispatch.

How do you celebrate Eid al-Adha with your family? Do you find it hard to create a festive atmosphere?

We go as a family to prayers at the mosque in the morning. Then we visit friends in the community at the Eid open houses they hold in their homes. Often we will have planned a kids’ party or outing with some families that also have young children. In the past, we have gone to Chuck E. Cheese, Magic Mountain or other local children’s play area. It is also common for us to attend community dinners at the mosque. We observe the Islamic tradition of distributing meat to the poor at this holiday (usually lamb or beef because of the story of the Prophet Abraham’s test). We usually have this done by a relief agency which distributes the meat to needy families.

We have many ways as a family that we keep the atmosphere celebratory and festive. The kids are off from school. We all wear traditional, festive clothes, often from Pakistan. The kids receive toys and money as gifts, and they are allowed to eat as much candy, desserts, and sweets as they like during the open houses and parties! We also make a special effort as a family to be happy and positive with each other and try not to allow people to argue or be in a negative mood that day.

Andrea Useem, a longtime freelance journalist and creator of ReligionWriter.com, writes and produces content on religion and other topics for national news outlets. She lives in Northern Virginia with husband and three sons. This piece was originally published on ReligionWriter.com.

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